How to say sorry at work

So, you messed up. Maybe you missed a deadline, made an glaring error, or had a tense miscommunication with a coworker. It happens. There are endless ways to mess up at work. But luckily, there are almost just as many ways you can make things right.

We all know that apologizing is a crucial social skill, but what’s the best way to say sorry in the workplace?

There’s more to it than shrugging and saying, “I’m sorry.” An effective apology is one that acknowledges a situation and ultimately makes things better. It’s a learned skill, and not one that comes naturally. If you take some time to be thoughtful, you can learn some techniques to make your apologies as smooth as they can be. Once you have that down, you can make all the mistakes you want. (I’m kidding. Don’t do that.)

Why apologize?

Saying sorry is something that comes naturally to most people—and sometimes too naturally. But some people don’t stop to think about it at all. In general, most apologies serve two major purposes:

  1. It demonstrates remorse for your actions.
  2. It acknowledges the feelings of other people affected by your actions.

At work this is particularly important: apologizing opens up a dialog with your coworkers and can serve to re-establish trust or repair relationships. It’s also a way to demonstrate your sense of accountability.

While an apology might seem trivial or unnecessary in some situations, owning your mistake and suggesting a solution can go a long way. Admitting fault might seem like a failure, but it’s not. Taking responsibility for a mistake shows integrity, courage, and empathy—valuable traits in the workplace.

And always remember that an apology isn’t for your benefit. A true apology is for the person on the other side, so always put them first.

8 steps to apologize effectively at work

Saying sorry in the workplace is delicate. Depending on the severity of your mistake (especially if there are legal or PR repercussions), finding the courage to apologize can be hard. But not apologizing can make things worse. So let’s get into it. Consider these eight steps before attempting to smooth things over.

Start from sincerity

There’s no point in apologizing if you don’t mean it. This is a basic tenet of apologies, one that we’ve all learned as children. People can tell when you’re not sincere, and an insincere apology is more than worthless: it’s disrespectful.

If you don’t feel like what you did or said was wrong, than consider the effect it had and the way it affected other people on your team. Can you admit that their their feelings are worth addressing? Or even acknowledge that a mistake simply made other people’s lives just a little bit harder. Always start from a sincere place.

Empathize with enthusiasm

Really put yourself in another person’s shoes. What would you want to hear if the situation were reversed? Talk yourself through the steps to truly understand where they are coming from and how they are feeling. Do they feel betrayed? Frustrated? Embarrassed? Understanding the emotions involved makes the rest of your apology much easier.

Take true responsibility

Understand how you messed up, and own it. For me, this is usually the hardest part. My instinct is to be defensive. I hate being wrong! But owning a mistake conveys to the other person that you’re sincere and empathize with how they feel. It’s the part of saying sorry that some people skip, but it demonstrates courage and confidence.

Validate the other person’s feelings

We aren’t robots. Humans are emotional creatures that need to be acknowledged and to have others know that our feelings are legitimate. Take into account—and communicate that you understand—specifically how your actions affected others. It goes a long way in repairing the damage.

It can help to articulate those feelings out loud:

  • “I can see how this made you feel left out
  • “I don’t want to undermine your authority
  • “I should be more respectful of your privacy

You’re letting the other person know that you understand how they feels and that you want to make amends.

Don’t make excuses, but provide a rationale

This is tricky ground that we’ve all tried to walk at some point. It’s a fine line between an excuse and a reason. Saying “My dog ate my homework” is an excuse (and probably a lie!), but saying “I had trouble understanding the homework,” offers a rationale and explanation for why it wasn’t handed in.

While not a justification, it can be helpful to explain yourself. But if you can’t tell whether you’re making an excuse or providing a reason, it’s better not to say anything.

Embrace the awkward

Let’s face it: apologizing can be super awkward. There’s really no way to avoid it. I sometimes want to make a joke to lighten the situation, but it usually doesn’t go over well. The time you should wait before making a joke is correlated to how big that mistake is. In other words: patience before punchlines.

Instead, be upfront to address the elephant in the room: “This is awkward, but I need to apologize.” Being candid can help deflate some of the tension.

Suggest ways to make up for your mistake

Researchers at the University of Miami found that “the extent to which a transgressor offered conciliatory gestures to their victims was directly proportional to the extent to which those victims forgave over time.”

I always offer a solution for a mistake, or suggest ways to prevent it from happening in the future. If you’re making promises about the future, be realistic. Messing up once is OK, and people are generally understanding. But if you can’t follow through, it’s not going to reflect well on you. For me, it’s easy to want to over-promise. Resist the urge! It won’t help you in the long run.

Learn from it

We all screw up, it’s a part of life. All we can do is to extract a lesson and move on. And in this case, you can learn from your mistake and your apology.

I start by thinking how I can avoid this mistake in the future, or maybe navigate that situation better in the future. Was my apology well received? How could it have been better? Depending on what I did, it might take a few tries to actually stop making that mistake, but at the very least I try to take a nugget of wisdom from the situation.

Moving on

Eventually, you’ll find yourself having to apologize at work. Nobody’s perfect. But by owning your mistake, recognizing how your actions affected other people, and learning how to make things better, your next apology will hopefully be a bit easier.

Apologies are kind of uncomfortable, and that’s a good thing. It’s a reminder that we should consider other people’s feelings before acting, and a powerful disincentive for selfish behavior. In the end, saying sorry can only make you a better person.

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